Helping preemies meet milestones
When it comes to kids, it seems like there is a developmental checklist for everything. Is your child walking too soon? Is she speaking clearly at the right age? But for parents like Monique Hester and Joseph Silvis, whose son Andrew was born at only one pound and one ounce, the concerns are very real.
Preemies have a higher risk of medical and developmental disorders. With this in mind, Virtua's neonatal follow-up program evaluates babies like Andrew every three months up to two years.
This assessment identifies subtle developmental differences that are common in preemies, but can go unnoticed during routine exams. "For example, preemies may arch their backs when placed on their bellies," explains Virtua neonatologist Mirye Kim, MD. "Although parents sometimes see this as good head control, it can be caused by weakened trunk muscles and may require therapy."
Toys and games that measure a baby's strength, dexterity and fine motor skills are used as part of the assessment. "Toys with noise, for example, can show us if a baby is responding to sound in the proper way," says Dr. Kim.
Dr. Kim also teaches parents what to look for in cognitive and language development. "Communication begins long before a child's first words," she explains. "Parents should alert us if a child is not meeting milestones for two-way communication." From birth to 6 months, they should look at faces; from 12 to 18 months, they should point or gesture to express themselves; by age 2 they should use two word sentences.
Since children's brains are pliable, identifying delays and intervening when necessary means earlier improvement. If a delay is identified, the necessary intervention is determined.
The neurologic examination may be supplemented with tests to check for seizure activity and brain irregularities. Children with underlying conditions require treatment by a pediatric neurologist, but therapy is really the key to helping all children fulfill their potential.
Through Virtua's Early Intervention Program, children up to age 3 with developmental delays receive individualized, family-centered care including physical, occupational, and speech therapy as well as educational and social support.
At 13 months, Andrew continues to impress mom and dad by meeting his developmental milestones. "Great things really do come in small packages," says Hester.
5 tips to encourage development
While premature babies need extra support, an environment that encourages growth is important for all babies. Try these simple strategies to help your baby develop:
- Avoid always holding baby in the same arm: This can lead to asymmetrical muscle tone.
- Encourage belly time: Start with two to three minutes and gradually increase time as baby's comfort grows.
- Limit devices like walkers that encourage baby to stand on his toes: Instead, create a safe environment for baby to explore by crawling or walking unassisted.
- Talk to baby regularly: Start with simple words to describe daily activities. As baby begins to talk, expand on what she is saying to show enthusiasm.
- Remember that checklists are only guidelines: And for preemies, always use baby's "adjusted age." For example, a 1-year-old born three months early should be compared to a 9-month-old.